With its summery combination of aubergines, courgettes, peppers and tomatoes, ratatouille is a beloved classic of southern French cuisine, particularly in Nice. But this simple, seasonal stew is more complex than it may seem at first glance.
For one thing, its core ingredients aren’t native to the area. Despite today’s association between tomatoes and the Mediterranean, these New World fruits only arrived in Europe at the beginning of the 16th Century. And moreover, they remained purely ornamental for nearly two centuries.
“A ratatouille is, by its very definition, a combination of vegetables fried and then simmered in a tomato sauce,” said Niçois culinary historian Alex Benvenuto. “And tomatoes weren’t officially [considered edible in Europe] until 1731.” (This is thanks to Scottish botanist Philip Miller, who was the first to categorize them as such in Europe.)
Tomatoes aren’t the only New World ingredient to find their way into this classic French dish. Courgettes and peppers, too, came to Europe from the Americas. Aubergines, meanwhile, arrived by way of India in the 16th Century. Then white and round – thus resembling the “eggs” that give them their American name, eggplant – aubergines were also seen as purely ornamental for quite some time. Until they were considered fit for human consumption, “there couldn’t be ratatouille,” said Benvenuto.
A true ratatouille is a labour of love, with emphasis on labour
But ratatouilles of some kind predated the popularisation of these vegetables as food in the 18th Century, albeit in a very different form. Stemming from the French verb touiller, meaning “to stir”, the first dishes of the name were stews popular on the tables of southern France’s poor: less a recipe than a hodgepodge of whatever was on hand.
One of the first published appearances of the word “ratatouille”, in the 1831 Journal des sciences militaires des armées de terre et de mer (Journal of military science for armies of land and sea) continues in this vein, referring not to a rich vegetable medley but rather to a watery vegetable stew served to soldiers in which “float here and there a few scrawny ribs of veal or bad mutton”. In fact, the word for a military ration – rata – is likely linked to the word ratatouille, though which came first – rata or ratatouille – is a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario.
One thing is for sure: today’s ratatouille is a far cry from these basic stews of 19th Century mess halls and the poor. A true ratatouille is a labour of love, with emphasis on labour.
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First, each vegetable must be perfectly cut into pieces. While some opt for more rustic half-moons or slices, Niçoise chef Julia Sedefdjian, the youngest Michelin-starred female chef in France, prefers a precise dice. “They have to be perfect squares: not too big, not too small,” she said. “You want them to melt, but also to be able to recognise each vegetable in the finished dish.”
For this to occur, each vegetable must be fried separately in olive oil before being simmered in a tomato- and onion-based sauce. Cooking the vegetables separately ensures that “each will taste truly of itself,” said the late chef Joël Robuchon.
When this technique is embraced, ratatouille is enjoyed by all walks of life, from humble country farmers to culinary connoisseurs at Michelin-starred tables. “It’s a convivial, family dish,” Sedefdjian said. “But you can rethink it so that it’s a little bit more refined.” At her Parisian restaurant Baieta, she serves it as an appetiser topped with confit octopus.
If it’s poorly cooked, really, a ratatouille can be rubbish
But while Sedefdjian is certainly doing ratatouille justice, the same cannot be said for all chefs.
“Often, ratatouille can be a sad and watery afterthought, plopped next to a protein like chicken, beef or lamb,” said Rosa Jackson, founder of Les Petits Farcis culinary school in Nice, who teaches ratatouille as part of her Best of Nice series, now online. Cooks often opt for the wrong variety of vegetable, for example, choosing watery supermarket courgette instead of the Niçois “trompette” variety so beloved locally for its nutty aroma, or chucking all of the vegetables into a slow cooker instead of frying them individually.
“It’s a really simple dish,” Sedefdjian said, “but frankly, there aren’t a lot of people making it well. If it’s poorly seasoned, if it’s poorly cooked, really, a ratatouille can be rubbish.”
In 2017, Benvenuto presided over an association called Cuisine niçoise, patrimoine de l’humanité that successfully applied to have Niçois cuisine protected as part of Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists. Uniting linguists, cooks, sociologists and historians, the association created recipes that were historically accurate – including one for ratatouille.
“It was a very serious job,” he said. “Close to university research.”
Their recipe calls for individually frying aubergines, courgettes, peppers and onions before simmering the vegetables together in the tomato sauce in the oven for nearly an hour. When this and other Niçois recipes were protected by France’s culture ministry in 2019 – an important first step towards Unesco recognition – the association earned the right to grant a label to those local restaurants preparing it well – and take the label away from those resorting to shortcuts.
“We took away three just last year,” said Benvenuto.
The time-consuming nature of a true ratatouille has paved the way for easier-to-make alternatives. A ratatouille en bohémienne, for example, calls for stewing all the vegetables together rather than frying them separately. The recipe for a true bohémienne, which became popular around the same time as ratatouille in Provence’s Vaucluse area, traditionally boasts fewer ingredients, relying mainly on tomato and aubergine and foregoing peppers and courgettes. When done right, it is rich and sweet; done wrong, particularly when the simpler technique is applied to ratatouille’s longer ingredients list, it can become an unfortunate, bland, soupy mess. It is nevertheless this version that appears on most restaurant tables – even those claiming to serve its more famous cousin.
In a similar vein, the “ratatouille” perfected by friendly epicurean rat Rémy in the eponymous Pixar and Disney film is actually a dish of another name entirely. First developed by chef Michel Guérard in 1976, this dish – dubbed confit byaldi (named after a Turkish stuffed aubergine dish called imam bayildi) – was adapted by Chef Thomas Keller for the film. While it may boast the same ingredients as ratatouille, it is layered and baked, making it far more photogenic than the more rustic vegetable stew. Dishes in this style also bear a wholly different name in the traditional cuisine of Provence. “It’s not a ratatouille,” laughed Sedefdjian. “It’s a tian.”
Another take on ratatouille was recently popularised by superstar chef Cyril Lignac. In his version, which he made on his cooking show “Tous en Cuisine” on 14 April during the coronavirus lockdown in France, the chef with the lilting southern French accent flavoured the vegetables with cumin and topped them with a poached egg. And while the cumin is far from traditional for a ratatouille, the egg is, at least according to Benvenuto.
“The first day you eat it hot,” said Benvenuto. “The second day, you eat it cold; and the third day, you toss in some eggs, and dig right in!”
Lignac’s recipe was quite popular in France during lockdown, contributing perhaps to the spike in searches that ratatouille experienced in April, according to Google Trends. And even before lockdown, Benvenuto experienced interest in the dish when he published his “historically accurate” version, perfected with experts and historians – proof of the enduring love for this simple, aestival recipe.
With its reliance on local, seasonal ingredients – and the richness in flavour that comes from its time-tested techniques – it’s no wonder that this humble, comfort food dish remains a near-unanimous favourite.
4 large white or yellow onions
800g long aubergines
1 red pepper
1 yellow pepper
1kg small Niçois “trompette” courgettes, with flowers
4 cloves garlic
1 dollop anchovy paste
1 sprig thyme
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs parsley
1 sugar cube
1 onion stuck with 2 cloves (optional)
salt and pepper, to taste
First, prepare the vegetables: Slice the onions. Cut the aubergines into 1cm rounds. Stick them lightly with the point of a knife, sprinkle with salt to help them release their liquid and set aside. Dunk the tomatoes in boiling water for 30 seconds, then peel and crush with a fork. Remove the seeds from the peppers and cut into 1cm strips. Cut the courgettes into rounds about 1cm thick. Peel the garlic and slice very thinly.
In a large cast iron pot, cook the onion in olive oil seasoned with the anchovy paste. Add a sprig of thyme and season with pepper. Stir with a wooden spoon. As soon as the onion starts to turn golden but before it browns, add the crushed tomatoes, bay leaf, parsley, saffron, clove-stuck onion (if using) and a sugar cube to reduce the acidity of the tomato.
In one or several pans, separately fry the aubergines (10 minutes), peppers (10 minutes) and courgettes (5 minutes) in olive oil, removing each vegetable and setting aside before moving on to the next. Season with salt and pepper and remove any excess oil by draining each vegetable on paper towels before transferring to the tomato sauce.
Cover the pot of vegetables and tomato sauce with parchment paper and then the lid of the pot. Simmer 40 to 45 minutes, preferably in an oven at between 150° and 180° C. Remove the clove-stuck onion, and season to taste. Add olives and a touch of basil (if using) just before serving.
(Credit: Carnets de cuisine du Comté de Nice, adapted for BBC Travel)
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